Swen Vincke is the bossman at Larian, they of the Divinity games and now ambitious Dragon Commander, and he’s taking his studio in a bold new direction: free of the publisher contract, they are going to develop and publish the game themselves. Vincke talks about this strategy – and few other issues like the real reason people said the PC was “dead” – in this wide-ranging and fascinating interview.
RPS: So you guys are self-publishing Dragon Commander. That seems like a bold move from a traditional development house like you guys. Can you explain the story behind that?
Vincke: Well, I guess that will be a long story! It’s something we wanted to do for a long time, since 2002 when we published Divinity through CDV and I discovered, to my dismay, that we didn’t earn anything on that game despite it selling quite well. After that there followed a long struggle in trying to change any single deal which we signed into one in which we would earn a little more. This struggle was inspired by visiting the big publishers and attending meetings in which I was told no one wanted to play fantasy RPGs, and so forth. To cut a long story short, what happened is that we started doing smaller deals with distributors in certain territories. We would say to a publisher: “Do you have an office in Singapore?” And they would reply “no, but we have an excellent partner”, and it happens to be that we are already talking to that partner, and so we’d do that. So we learned about publishing that way, learned about distribution, doing these deals so that we are able to build up some reserves. Now we have reached a point where those reserves are sufficiently large that we are able to say “for this next game, we do not need a publisher”. That is what happened!
RPS: You are talking about taking charge of distributing physical copies of your game around the world?
Vincke: Yes. That is because nowadays people are all talking about the indie revolution and the power of digital distribution, but retail has always been the powerbase of publishers and remains very important as a sales channel. It is still the dominant sales channel, in fact. If you do manage to get your game into stores and have a product that appeals to gamers, you will still sell more at retail than you will at digital. But obviously it is much more complicated. With digital you are able to just put it up there and get sales, but retail the process takes more work.
RPS: That’s interesting, because the people we tend to speak to these days are pretty much relying on digital systems like Steam to publish their games, even larger studios… you think that retail is still an option, even for self-publishers?
Vincke: Of course it is! We did a deal in Germany with a local distributor for the last Divinity game and we sold more than 100,000 units in Germany alone. Convert that into revenue. That’s quite a lot of revenue.
RPS: So what sort of stage are you guys at with Dragon Commander now?
Vincke: Well… it looks horrible right now. We are doing a lot of work on the internals, so there is not a lot to look at. But everything should get integrated next few months and we’ll start showing the game again. There’s a whole bunch of stuff in there which is very unlike what we did in other games, but give us one month more to get to that.
RPS: Yes, the game does seem quite different to your previous offerings, can you explain why you went that route?
Vincke: I have this little notebook here full of game ideas that I’d like to do, and I’ve tried pitching them to publishers, several times, and I’ve never managed to get funding. Since we’ve said that we will now go completely independent it was time to take a look in the little notebook and see what we’re going to make. Out of that came Dragon Commander. It’s a blend of genres that I’ve always liked to play – my gaming education was in the Amiga times, and the C64 before that – and I remember playing this Cinemaware game, Defender Of The Crown, which was something I liked, and it was a genre that faded away. But if you put modern production values on that, and add all the innovations of the intervening years on that, then you have something appealing. And in any case I would like to play it, so we said “okay let’s bet on that”. It’s risky! I pitched it to the usual suspects and they all looked at me… suspiciously, let’s put it that way.
RPS: Are the big publishers stifling creativity? Should they take more risks?
Vincke: Ah, well. There’s a few things I can say to that. Individually, when you talk to people who work at big publishers, they are almost all people who want to do innovative, creative work. They want to take risk, but as a group they never will, because they have to be afraid of a flop title. They put their ideas in a green-light room and discuss it, and they might get individually excited by an idea, but then they discuss the downs of it, and it’s killed right there. I’ve seen it happen a couple of times. I’ve been to these meetings and pitched ideas that these companies liked, but then someone from sales says “is there something comparable on the market? How will it sell?” and then someone else asks “how are we going to market it? Who else has marketed a game like this?” and then you hear a couple of examples of new things failing, and the idea is killed on the spot.
The larger publishers think at very large scales. They want a £20m project, they don’t think that they can perhaps still spend a couple of million and get results from that. They are just not set up to think that way. The smaller publishers are set up for small projects, but then you get the downsides of them getting involved, especially if you are trying to innovate. To innovate you will require iteration, and iteration and development directors of small publishers do not work well together.
RPS: But when you look at developers taking control, you see some real successes. And the increasing number of them suggests that the publisher models are wrong. They should not being saying “what sells?” but looking more at “how can we sell?”
Vicke: I couldn’t agree more, but it’s what I see happen. I know people at every publisher after fifteen years in this business, and they regard successes like Angry Birds or Minecraft as accidents, and only then will they say “how can we replicate that?” Or take The Sims – that almost didn’t get signed because it was new. They don’t have the right reflex towards games. They do not see them as something that you might want to play. If you want to play it, then there’s a good chance a lot of other people will want to play it, but they try to quantify it purely in terms of “how are we going to sell it?” It’s fairly surreal when you see those meetings in action.
RPS: Derivative shooters obviously sell really well… does it matter that they continue to make them? What happens if the games industry doesn’t innovate? What needs to change to push games forward?
Vicke: A cliché is a cliché because has proved to be popular. People like clichés. Terry Pratchett is going to write Diskworld over and over because people like reading about it. People like elves in fantasy RPG, so they appear again and again. But at the same time I think personally that the games industry would have benefited enormously, and be ahead of where it is now, if developers were benefiting directly from the money their games were making. The traditional business model has been stifling innovation simply because the publisher has been deciding whether a game gets made, not the developer. If you then look at the revenue which is generated by these developers it is enormous… for the publisher. If you had given the developerthat money they might have said “let’s try making this crazy idea,” like Dragon Commander! For us this feels like the right thing to make. Developers are idealistic, driven by idealism, and in that sense I think that you would have had much more innovation if they benefited from their profits.
RPS: Idealism is the thing. Did your entire company share your idealism when going it alone and developing your ideal game?
Vicke: I have been very open, so my company know how I am funding the project and how we are doing everything, and I have to say that Dragon Commander is a game that was picked up enthusiastically by the team, right away. In fact it has become more about me saying “no, don’t do that, or we’ll never get it finished”. I have had to control all the ideas that the team has come up with from the premise of the game. There’s a lot of stuff we can, and that is a lot of fun.
RPS: Is the PC really seeing a renaissance? Or is it just a renaissance in perception?
Vicke: I never had the impression that the PC market had a problem. PC games have always sold. What did happen was certain territories like the UK or the US saw a decline. Other territories like Eastern Europe or Germany, you always had strong PC sales. I have a blog that I am doing, and I intend to share real numbers on there. I have noticed there is a difference between the numbers actually being sold and what is cited in the press by research firms, and that creates a false perception. When you see the actual numbers you say “wow, this is a massive industry.”
RPS: That’s because the big publishers look at the UK and the US and then ignore the rest of the world, isn’t it?
Vicke: Yes, I know that for sure because when I talk to publishers one of the reactions to my saying “there are millions of copies of Divinity out there” is “yeah, yeah, probably in Germany though!” I said “so what?” Ha! There’s still a lot of them. So what if they are in Germany? I don’t know where this idea comes from, and this idea that the PC doesn’t sell it is, in my view… well, the consoles were tremendously successful in the territories where most of the publishers based themselves, so the UK, US, and France, which meant that they almost missed what was happening in other markets. Asia, Germany, Eastern Europe, these are all strong PC markets. In Eastern Europe countries that were predominantly pirate countries have become very large markets indeed. All these factors combined were countering the stereotype that PC gaming was dying. PC gaming was only dying in the sense that if you make a game that was focused for consoles and then ported to the PC obviously it would not sell well on the PC! A PC dedicated title with a fitting budget will sell well. Also you see companies putting out games on 360, PS3, and PC, and then pointing out that their PC sales were lower, but that was often because they focused their efforts on the 360 and PS3 versions.
RPS: So you don’t see piracy as destroying the PC? I should say, actually, that the “piracy question” in interviews is a lottery now. Some people will say it’s the worst thing that could happen to games, while others see it as free advertising. The range of opinions on this is extraordinary. What’s your take?
Vicke: Well my blog entry on this got me hammered on NeoGAF! Ha, but the truth is if I had not pirated some games as a boy I would never have played them. I didn’t have the money, so I could not have seen them. It would be hypocritical of me to damn the teenagers who are pirating games! The economics have changed, of course, because you can get a lot of games for $1. In my day, the time of floppy disks, it was different. As for my thoughts on piracy… Well, which Swen are you talking to? Executive Swen will say that it is terrible, because each copied game could represent a lost sale, but then perhaps you could make the case for it being advertising. Whether it’s advertising for the game being pirates I don’t know. Perhaps for future games in the series! DRM I don’t like either. I only had wifi when I moved recently, and I wanted to play Civ 5, and it needed to be Steam activated, and couldn’t get through it because of bad wifi. It was a terrible customer experience. Of course every publisher I have ever spoken to has told me you have to have DRM. It’s not going to change, of course, but it’s not impossible to have an industry with piracy going on. People still bought LPs when you could also tape the radio. That industry was never larger.
RPS: Okay, let’s come back to you guys self-publishing Dragon Commander. Is that something you would advise other studios to do? Any tips?
Vicke: We have 40 people, so there is some cost involved. That is the primary thing. Okay, so, I wrote once that you should write a list of all the developers that went down and list what was their project, and who was their publisher… that would be a very interesting list for all developers. I think developers need to ask: What’s the point in burning through your dev budget and then making 5% or 10% profit and then not being able to continue to operate? You’re better off aiming for small projects and making sure you can get some revenue behind you, or you will never work on your own games. The other thing that I am really happy about in our current situation is this: when your game is with a publisher you cannot control the attention that is going to be given to your game. This is going to impact on both your game and your reputation as a studio. Some publishers will forces you to ship early, when sometimes just a couple of months can change from 60% to 80% scores. You will also control costs. Publishers will inflate costs and charge everything to a project. It’s horrible sometimes to see what happens to these budgets. In the end you get a better return and remind yourself why you were developing. It’s a very different life to being told what to do by publishing directors. Now that we are doing this I feel like we have freedom back. I like that. But of course I am doing it with a large team, not a garage team. That’s a risky endeavour, and you need to know what you are doing.
RPS: Thanks for your time.